It was 1997. I would come home after school, pin back the heavy blunt-cut bangs hiding a mountain range of zits on my forehead, apply a thick layer of Clearasil that dried in chalky white streaks, and log onto the internet. The modem would beep, whir, and ding like a digital pinball machine and then, after a great many seconds, I would check my inbox, which was really my dad’s inbox. I was 13-years-old, and I had a daily Leonardo DiCaprio newsletter to run.
This was how I spent every weekday afternoon in 7th grade. I often had half a dozen or so emails waiting for me from girls, and occasionally grown women, from all over the world. These online friends sent me tips about local Leo news stories, cute pics in such-and-such teen magazine, and upcoming appearances on Hard Copy or Entertainment Tonight. I spent hours collecting this information into a newsletter written in the tone, and with the grammatical flair, of someone who desperately needed to pee—all-caps, typo-riddled, and with masses of exclamation points.
My subscriber list swelled to the dozens, and then hundreds, and eventually over 1,000. Subscribers from Japan, Australia, and Britain snail mailed me promotional swag and magazine photos that I put in my dad’s behemoth of a scanner and then shared with our growing “Leo community.” At school, I was the girl who never raised her hand in class, but on the internet I was a mini media mogul with contacts all over the world. I wrote a letter to Leo’s publicist requesting access to press releases and landed an interview with someone claiming to be Kate Winslet’s body double on the as-yet-to-be-released Titanic.
For much of my adult life, my extreme tween fandom has made for a diverting anecdote—the sort of quirky personal factoid that I would trot out during games of Two Truths and a Lie. But the newsletter had been lost completely to the sands of the internet. Then, a couple months ago, my dad was doing some housecleaning and texted me, “I found a backup of your inbox from 1997. It has your Leo newsletters.” I squealed like I hadn’t squealed since, well, ’97.
I first saw Baz Luhrmann’s electric, modernized Romeo + Juliet on opening weekend in October of 1996. I was still 12-years-old—just a couple months away from becoming a teenager, like the original Juliet. The trailer for the movie had channelled everything I felt my life was lacking—drama, intensity, romance. The scene of Romeo spotting Juliet through a tropical fish tank was the encapsulation of my greatest fantasy. I wanted a boy to see me like that—to understand me entirely in an instant of eye-contact, and to love what he understood. I wanted to feel embraced and protected by that love so that I might never feel alone again. Was that too much to ask?
In the intervening weeks, I saw the movie again and again, each time pressing the ticket stub to my bedroom wall with a looped piece of Scotch tape. Then I saw it on my first real date with Adam, my longtime crush—only to have his best friend call my best friend later that night to break up with me. I was “too obsessed with Leo” and “it was weird.” A couple days later, I wrote in my diary somewhat optimistically, “Adam is such an asshole! I still have Leo, and always will!” But I also drew a cartoon of Adam with his disembodied head next to a speech bubble reading, “Tracy, why’d you have to chop my head off?”
When a friend emailed to ask how I was feeling about the breakup with Adam, I wrote back using language newly acquired from The Basketball Diaries, in which Leo plays a street-smart, drug-addicted poet:
I’m happy about how things turned out. But he’s still a squareass motherfucker! I wouldn’t ask that cocksucker for directions!
I kept taping those Romeo + Juliet ticket stubs to my wall and memorized the entire movie, beginning to end. I started sliding photos of Leo cut from Teen Beat into the plastic pocket of my school binder and scrawled “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” in bubbly text and sparkly gold marker on one of my notebooks. My dad helped me download audio clips from the official Romeo + Juliet website and apply them as sound effects on the family computer. Whenever we got an email, Claire Danes pleaded, “Oh dearest Romeo, if thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully.” When an error occurred, Leo wailed, “I am fortune’s fool!”
In March of 1997, I sent my first newsletter to eight people I had met through the network of Leo fansites that exploded in the wake of Romeo + Juliet. It began:
Hello fellow Leo lovers/fans/obsessies/and people with the Leo crazies! I started this ‘mailing list’ because I, like many of you am a fan(BIG FAN) of Leonardo DiCaprio. I’ve spent time working on a web page that I never published, that was dedicated to the one and only Leo-but it’s just 2 much wrk(ARGH!)!!!!!!! ... So here it iz, with not much work or time-but made by someone who believes they know mucho grande about this romeo and would like to share recent news the secound it’s available and just chat with other people and have other people chat with other people.
Not the strongest pitch—but word slowly spread and the newsletter started to take off. At first, I had to manually add each subscriber’s email address one-by-one to every newsletter. It was such a time-consuming process, and I was getting so many requests that I started to restrict membership, which soon approached 100. I emailed one hopeful subscriber, “There’s a waiting list—sorry.” But, after my dad helped me to automate it, the subscriber list grew into the high hundreds and beyond.
A typical email began with “HEYLLO!!!!!!!!!!!!!” or “Waz upper people?” or “AHHHHHH! Mail overflow!!!!! HELP!!!!!!!HELP ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” In one newsletter, I wrote, “So what’s new with the guy that put the Shake back into Shakespeare?” While apologizing for an unusually brief newsletter, I wrote, “You guys haven’t been e-ing me as mucho stuffo so I canto puto anythingo ono fromo youo. Oko? Sorry I’m having an atack of the ‘ooooo’s.’”
The spelling, punctuation, and grammar were consistently atrocious in a way that seems almost effortful. Then again, I was 13, and I felt that I was communicating essential and urgent information. At times, it was like I was tapping out desperate S-O-S communiqués in Morse code.
Each newsletter started with the latest Leo news, which often consisted of alerts about relevant TV listings—many of which I was tipped off to by readers. You might say that I was like a less accurate, un-copy-edited, crowd-sourced TV Guide. One email began, “EMERGENCY NEWSLETTER!!!!!!!!!!!! Leo on Inside Edition???????? That is what the rumor is! TONIGHT!” For weeks and weeks, I hyped the upcoming “B-Walters” interview with Leo on 20/20—lest anyone miss it. Missing a TV appearance was experienced as near tragedy—as I wrote in one newsletter: “OMIGOD!!!!!!!!! I missed Leo on E!’s gossip show!!!!!!!!!!!! OH DEAR!!!!!!!!!! OH MAN!!!!!!”
This fan desperation created something of a black market for VHS recordings of his appearances. Leo’s turn on Late Show with David Letterman, which aired past most of our bedtimes, was an especially hot commodity. I attempted to download a clip of it and failed. “I tried and it took a long, longgggggggg time,” I wrote in a newsletter. “My ‘puter wasn’t able to save it because it took up WAY too much space.” Then I sent out a newsletter with the contact information for a man rumored to be selling the tape for 20 bucks a piece. I soon received an angry email from him: “In the last 5 hours, I’ve been bombarded with requests for the Letterman interview,” he wrote. “I NEVER authorized anyone to put my name in this newsletter. Doing so has only served to disappoint many fans as well as irritate the hell out of me.”
The newsletter catalogued Leo’s appearances in magazines just as exhaustively—I would alert readers to the “small picture of Leo + James Cameron” in the new issue of Premiere or the “two pics of our cutie” in British Elle. In one newsletter, I wrote:
OHHH!! ALSSSSSOOOO THE CURRENT ISSUE OF INSTYLE! THEY HAVE GREAAAAAAT PICS IN THERE(I’m gonna scan ‘em soon) THEY HAVE ONE OF LEO AT A FASHION SHOW(LOOKING GORGE AS USUAL) ONE PIC OF HIS RESERVED CHAIR WITH HIS NAME ON IT AT THE CYNTHIA ROWELY SHOW, AND THEY ALSO HAVE A PIC OF HIS EX, BIJOUX WHATEVER, ANNND THEY HAVE A PIC AND ARTICLE ABOUT HOW THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER SAID LEO DEMANDED CAVIAR AND REAL CHAMPAGNE FOR TITANIC AND THEY CLEARED UP HIS IMAGE AND SAID IT WASN’T TRUE!!!!!!!!! Yay!!!!!!
Readers from all over the world would send me tips from local newspapers—about Leo filming a movie or vacationing in town. A subscriber wrote to me claiming to have seen a man wearing a shirt reading “Stunt Crew” and “Titanic.” I reported this without questioning its accuracy or newsworthiness. Sometimes, the tips were patently bogus, as with the woman who emailed me to say, “the TITANIC is cancled! The TITANTIC is cancled!!!!!!!!!” (To which I responded: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!?!?!?!”) Subscribers as far flung as Singapore and Australia would transcribe entire articles—this was long before Google News—so that I could republish them in full, along with due credit (“typed out by Lena”).
After a couple months, I started to worry about the gossip mill that was tarnishing our beloved Leo’s image, painting him as a modelizing cad when I felt he was a misunderstood artiste. So I wrote to Leo’s publicist requesting access to press releases. “I have no way of verifying stories I have received nor in discouraging people from believing them,” I said. “I hate to censor what I put in the newsletter, however, at the same time I do not wish to disseminate lies.” I continued, “I have a respect for his integrity and intelligence and would far prefer to communicate his true feelings and true self to his fans on the Internet.”
Then, I instituted some newsletter changes. “I just htink htat there are a few things I can do with the newsletter that could be better for Leo’s rep,” I told my subscribers. “please, no gossipy stuff—we don’t want to turn into tabloid writers...I don’t want the newsetter to turn into ‘The National Enquirer’(no offense to ‘TNE’ readers).” I added, “Also, let’s not be a group of teenagers swooning over his lusciousness.” (This from the same girl who wrote to a friend, “I’d loooooovvve to have a peice of his dirty laundry.”)
I fancied myself a sassy dispeller of harmful rumors. “HE IS NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOTTTTTTTTTTTTTT GOING OUT WITH DEMI MOORE—thank god he has better taste and the sense not to go out with a woman 300 yrs older than him and married to a Hollywood hot-shot(more like cold),” I wrote. I was a purveyor of facts (“Leo’s name is not spelled Leonardo De Caprio—OK?”) and deep trivia (where he went to high school, his favorite book, his mother’s name). My super-fandom bordered on extreme, even among fellow Leo obsessives. As one subscriber wrote to me, “It just seems crazy that you have this much knowledge about someone you don’t even know. Do you do anything other than send emails about Leonardo DiCaprio?” I wrote back, “it’s not weird when I enjoy it. I know it all cause I have a really good memory—seriously! But I DO have a life—trust me, my boyfriend will tell you!”
I did not have a boyfriend.
I was an unrepentant snob about my encyclopedic Leo knowledge. When I reviewed Grace Catalano’s biography, Modern Day Romeo, for a popular fan site, I could not contain my disdain for her unoriginal reporting. “I had a lot of trouble with the amount of information-which was very little,” I wrote, but I allowed that “it was entertaining ... to read the same information I’d read and heard so many times before except in a different arrangement.”
My growing interest in reporting news with “HARD evidence,” as I put it, led me to interview someone claiming to be Kate Winslet’s body double on Titanic. Some of my pressing questions included: “Did he ever bring someone named Kristine Zang [the model Leo was rumored to be dating] to the set?” and “I read that he danced around the set with his [pet] lizard on his head singing ‘This is How we do it!’...did he sing any other songs?” Her answers: “nope” and “he wasn’t singing with his lizard on his head, but he was often seen with his lizard on his head, until it got big.” Most scandalously, I asked whether he was a flirt and she answered, simply, “yes.”
But, much as I was interested in facts, I also cared deeply about feelings and included a forum in each newsletter for readers to express their opinions about things like Leo’s cigarette habit or taste for models. His virginity—or lack thereof—was a hot topic. One girl, making some logical leaps, wrote, “it brings tears to my eyes to think that leo would be so heartless as to knock up some poor girl because he was horny.” Another wrote, “we must remember that Leo is only human. It sometimes seems like people expect him to be Super Boy or something and have our exact opinions and our exact morals.”
Leo’s sexuality was a frequent subject. When a reader wrote in to ask whether rumors about him being gay were true, I responded, “I do not know if Leo is straight, gay, bi or whatever...that’s really his buisiness, and I would hope that he was straight just because I’m a girl and I’m in love with him.”
His love scene with another man in Total Eclipse, a movie about the tumultuous love affair between French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, was another talker. Some thought it was “cool” and “JUST A ROLE.” All I cared about was that he was NAKED in the movie. “He has it goin’ on, if you get my drift,” I wrote in an email to a friend after watching it. “Just let me tell ya, he has a NICE , no REALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLY NICE bod. My ‘rents didn’t watch it with me, I won’t let them cause it would be tooooooo weird for ‘em to see my hunny in the buff!”
Each newsletter ended with a section titled, “Creative Corner,” a place for love poems and fan-fiction. There were often stories about imagined chance encounters with Leo—him spotting you in a crowd at a movie premiere and having his publicist pass along his number, say—but they never ventured into the sexual. One of my then-favorites—and, in hindsight, one of the more revealing of how girls are drawn into living through boys—read, in its entirety:
I sat up and glanced towards him at first. Then I stayed and watched as he slept. I observed carefully as his breath fell in and out in heavy sighs. His lips were slightly parted, his hair a little messy - but his eyes were peacefully shut and his arms drawn into his chest, almost embracing himself. And I admired him. I thought of his work and talent that I adored, and I remembered how I felt every time I saw him perform. And I was proud.
What an amazing man was here before me! He has come so far. And I wanted to shout to him, “Congratulations! You are a star!” But I could see he was dreaming, as his brow twitched and tensed slightly. No matter, I’m sure he knows he’s great. Not wanting to disturb his world, I turned to go. And before I left, I leaned in closely to his ear and whispered, “What is it you dream about?”
As the newsletter grew, I craved an even bigger audience, so I plowed through the “2 much wrk(ARGH!)!!!!!!!” and published my Leo fansite. Giddy with my recent discovery of alliteration, I titled it, “Leonardo’s Humble Home.” I logged days—maybe weeks—placing each and every one of my collected Leo images into the scanner so that I could boast the best photo collection of all the fansites. A woman from Japan mailed me a promotional booklet for Romeo + Juliet. Another lady mailed me a British teen magazine featuring Leo on the cover.
I got into interminable etiquette arguments with other webmasters who stole the images I had scanned. “The only thing I have a prob with is the fact that you never asked,” I wrote in a chain of back-and-forths with a grown woman who ran the most popular Romeo + Juliet fan site. “If you had asked I would have said sure! But the fact that you’ve done it more than once aggravates me when I clearly asked for people to ask.”
My site regularly got several thousands of hits a month, which I broadcast with a black-and-white HTML counter modeled after a digital clock. It’s a forever lost piece of the ’90s internet—apparently the Wayback Machine didn’t find Leonardo’s Humble Home a significant enough destination to catalog—but my teenage inbox offers a hint of the impression it made. When I sent a link to a friend from school, she wrote back, “Tracy you are the nuttiest person I have ever met!!!!!!!!”
My nuttiness was not restricted to the internet. After launching the newsletter and fansite, I managed to convince our drama teacher to choose Romeo and Juliet as our school play. I landed the lead role.
I knew the kiss was coming from the moment I auditioned, but I had been hoping that my new crush, Luke, whom I could squint at and believe to be a Leo lookalike, would be cast as Romeo. Instead, a gangly eighth grade boy with an unruly head of curls and a voice that randomly cracked got the part. He still wore sweatpants to school every day, a habit all of the boys in my grade had given up a year before. He was thoughtful, smart, and good at delivering his lines. I wanted nothing to do with him.
It would be my first kiss—with a boy, at least—and I was desperately nervous. The night before we were set to practice it, I went to hug my mom goodnight and planted a surprise kiss square on her lips. It was just a peck, a test of how two faces fit together, a reassurance that it could be done. She smiled and squeezed my shoulder knowingly. “Good night, honey.” The next afternoon, I sent out my newsletter:
Hi!!!! How’s everyone doing? I just got back from school and it sucked in capitle letters. I had Romeo+Juliet practice after though and that went ok—I was dead however for a longggggggg time(it seems like forever). I had to kiss this dorkus. BLECK!!!!!!
Revisiting my tween inbox, it’s clear that I was shifting between different identities and testing them out—just as I had nervously practice-kissed my mom and then cavalierly lamented having to kiss a dorkus. As I wrote to a friend, “I can’t really pinpoint who I want to be right now,” I said. “I don’t know who I am or who I want to be...I don’t have any time to get to know myself.”
My newsletter voice was part MTV VJ, part teen-girl magazine—but in private emails I often took a more sober tone. When someone wrote for advice on starting a newsletter about Shakespeare, I emailed back: “You have to adjust your writing to your audience,” I said. “If it’s for teens, make it exciting and hip...use slang and common language for teens. If you want an adult audience act mature and go into great depth analyzing Shakespeare’s plays.”
I was always adjusting my voice—and sometimes much more than that—for my audience. My email penpal, Amy, was from outside of Leo fandom. She was a sophomore in high school and so I pretended to be a sophomore in high school. She had a boyfriend and so I pretended to have a boyfriend (or “b-friend” as I put it—but then she didn’t know what I meant, so I had to explain). In one email, I told her, “Me and my guy are getting pretty serious...if you know what I mean. Let me just say 6 words to sum up our relationship: Last weekend was more than cool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I also told Amy about my newsletter, but I pretended to be above it. “ARGHH! I have to do this stupid newsletter about Leo,” I wrote. She asked to subscribe out of curiosity—and then I mistakenly let my real age slip in a newsletter and she confronted me. “Sorry-I didn’t want to freak ya,” I told her in response. “Here’s the deal: All these punk-ass kids(12/13yrs. old) e-mailed me begging to be on the list. They were all like pre-teens or shit like that, and they’re like, ‘How old are you? I hope you’re not in college or something... .’” I was only pretending to be 13, I told her.
I wanted to distance myself not just from my age, but also from my own romantic idealism—my longing for love poems and butterfly kisses and love at first sight, all of which increasingly seemed embarrassingly unrealistic.
Luke was starting to give me sweet dollops of attention but they always came with a bitter aftertaste—flirtatiously sitting on my lap but then intentionally, perhaps a little sadistically, leaning into me until my body shook from his weight. Adam had thrown wadded up bits of paper at the back of my head during a recent school assembly, while he and the cool kids laughed and my face burned hot. And Leo, my dear, dear Leo—“I still have Leo, and always will!”—was seeming more and more like the modelizing cad depicted in the “’bloids.” There was an ever-widening gap between my fantasy of boys and men, and the reality of boys and men.
In the fall of 1997, as I approached my 14th birthday, I decided I wasn’t a teenybopper anymore. I turned Leonardo’s Humble Home into a fan site for AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys. He was the designated bad boy of the group—what with his sad eyes, tattoos, and questionable facial hair. Now here was an adult crush. Sure, he sang love songs—but he also humped the stage during performances. As far as I can remember, I made the website switch overnight.
I also sent an email to my entire subscriber list to announce the end. What I said, I can’t be sure, because it isn’t included in the files that my dad backed up for me to explore decades later. All I know is that I did not go quietly. I doused the whole thing with gasoline and flicked a match at it. The only remaining evidence of my dramatic departure is a webpage that a newsletter subscriber created. It is an utterly perfect artifact of the time, with its bright purple background and neon green text. At the top it announces, “My Tribute to Tracy.” It reads:
When Princess Diana died, there were swormes of Leo pages turned into “Diana Tribute” pages. ... But now out Leo Loving Sociaty has expirienced another kind of loss, but not to death. I’m talking about Tracy. ... she sent out a beautifully creative Leo Newsletter. Everyday. It was amazing. She played the role all of us dreamed of playing, she was Juliet in her school’s play. She was also only 13 and had made so much of herself. ...
We’ve lost that Tracy. Not to death, but she has left our sociaty. She no longer loves Leo, she belives we “need help”. ... I found this all out at her page, this week when I visited it, I saw it was no longer a Leo page. I felt as much, even more shock then when I found out about Diana. It seems sick, doesn’t it? But it’s the truth. I cried.
What did we do to loose such a wonderful girl who was more mature that the oldest woman? Maybe we didn’t thank her enough. That doesn’t matter now, we took her for granted, and now she’s gone. She’s not coming back.
I had given them a melodramatic ending like the one we all knew so well. I felt like the Prince at the end of Romeo + Juliet, chastising the grieving families who brought about the tragic end, “All are punish’d”—or “punish-shed,” as he pronounces it. Who was I punish-sheding, who was I so mad at? The starry-eyed girls who still innocently mooned over a glossy teen idol. The boys, and men, who had torn away at my own idealistic fantasies (I’d show them). And, in that spectacularly pubescent—and Shakespearean!—way, myself. For never was a story of more woe than this of Tracy and her Romeo.